Film Review By Bel Hernandez
It’s a feel good movie, and it certainly does the job!
Some cynics might complain that it’s just another movie about a white guy coming to save the Latinos kids. Yeah it is — but it’s a true story. It actually happened in McFarland U.S.A., which just so happens to be the name of this Disney “underdogs triumph” kind of movie. The “white” dude, appropriately named Jim White, is played by none other than superstar Kevin Costner. OK, you have my attention.
How many great movies has Costner given the world (JFK, The Untouchables, Silverado); many sports related (Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game, Bull Durham), and my old time favorite, Dances With Wolves. Now McFarland U.S.A. gets to be listed among these great film.
McFarland is to Latinos what Dances With Wolves was to Native American. A big studio film that will bring a lot of attention to a marginalize group of people (although Latinos are not a marginalized when it comes to consumer power with $1.6 trillion dollars a year) in the U.S. This time around director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) did a nice job of focusing on other than the usual stereotypes. When McFarland, USA opens wide on Friday, February 20th it opens with a major buzz.
Costner leads a cast that is mostly Latino. Aside from his wife, played by Maria Bello, and his two daughters, the main characters are the unlikely track stars played by Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles and his team mates Hector Duran as Johnny Samaniego, Michael Aguero as Damacio Diaz, Johnny Ortiz as Jose Cardenas, Rafael Martinez as David Diaz, Sergio Avelar as Victor Puentes and Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny Diaz. All are exceptional as the little team that could, and did.
But as most Latino stories, family is always front and center with notable performances by Diana Maria Riva playing the stern but always helpful and encouraging Mrs. Diaz and her stern husband played by Omar Leyva who is a bit intimidating at first but becomes one of the team’s biggest fans. Over forty Latinos were cast, some of which make their screen debut with speaking roles.
You might say the whole town of McFarland is a character in the film, where the film was shot. The farming town so was excited and proud to have the town immortalized they were sure to come out, and if they weren’t in the film they were watching the shoot.
This sports drama is based on the true story of a 1987 cross country team of predominantly Mexican-Americans from McFarland High School in the farming town by the same name in Northern California. After getting fired (once again) from his coaching job back east, Jim White uproots his family of two and his wife to his new job at McFarland High.
A bit at odds with the new job and the principal of the school, a no-nonsense “I’m putting you on notice” attitude kind of guy, White convinces Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) that he should let him start a track team. Soon after he picks his unlikely team from the kids he has been watching around school and in town, some up early to go work in the fields, then it’s off to school; some high tailing it on foot to and from at high running speeds. It was only logical to White that they had to be on a track team.
It takes a bit of convincing of the kids, who at first are skeptical; of their parents, who argue that their children need to concentrate on their work on the fields; and then there is the dubious shopkeeper Sammie Rosaldo (Danny Mora) and the rest of the town who watch from afar who need convincing.
But White is on a mission, to get the boys to win track meets. The team trains hard, stumbling as first, and bucking against the discipline. But they soon realize that Coach White is serious and believes that they can be champs, soon they start believing it themselves. And then the parents become believers as well, they also become the fundraisers and the loyal fans, and soon the whole town is cheering for them.
It’s a feel good movie, and it certainly does the job! More importantly, it is a film where Latinos are the heroes. These kinds of stories in years past would have been cast with Anglo kids. It’s a rarity when Latinos get to play the heroes in big budget films (can we all say Argo with Ben Affleck playing Tony Mendez?). Sure, the film needed a Kevin Costner to add the star power, but Disney made it happen. The importance of a big studio making a film about Latino heroes is major and it’s about time they got it right.
Universal sells “cool” to Latinos in their Fast and Furious franchise, (which Latinos help open to record breaking boxoffice numbers). Disney is hoping they have found the formula to big budget “hero films” about Latinos for the general market. They have taken a lot of steps to ensure they do it right. From the casting, lead by Sheila Jaffe, who early on reached out to ensure she saw every Latino possible for the roles; to the music, enlisting the talents of mega international superstar Juanes to do the theme song, to hiring UCLA professor and Latino Theater Company director Jose Luis Valenzuela as a consulting on the film, Disney gets high marks for wanting to get it right.
In development for ten years McFarland, USA is penned by Grant Thompson, as well as Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Disney presentation of a Mayhem Pictures production. Produced by Gordon Gray, Mark Ciardi. Executive producers, Mario Iscovich, Mary Martin. Co-producer, Victor H. Constantino.
Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Michael Aguero, Sergio Avelar, Hector Duran, Rafael Martinez, Martha Higareda, Johnny Ortiz, Carlos Pratts, Ramiro Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Valente Rodriguez, Vanessa Martinez, Chris Ellis Jr., Diana Maria Riva, Elsie Fisher.